Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2018: Dick Vitale, College-Basketball Wordsmith
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A master of wordplay that has enhanced the lexicon of sports broadcasting, Dick Vitale has inhabited the TV screens of college-basketball fans for four decades. With a résumé that includes numerous Hall of Fame inductions (notably, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Hall of Fame), eight movie appearances (including Blue Chips and He Got Game), nine books, and iconic calls, he has always had a simple motto that has kept him grounded.
“My parents told me to never, ever believe in the word can’t and to always be good to people,” Vitale says. “I used to hear at the dinner table every day that, if you’re good to people, a lot of good things are going to happen for you.”
Growing up in East Rutherford, NJ, Vitale graduated from Seton Hall University after four years at East Rutherford High School. In athletics, he was involved in all sports, but basketball presented a unique opportunity.
“I realized that, if you want to get ahead in the coaching profession as a guy that wasn’t a great player or had a recognizable name, the quickest way to the top was basketball,” he says. “I went to as many clinics and camps as I could and studied as much as I could about the game.”
Beginning his coaching career at the high school level, Vitale found his first taste of success at his alma mater, earning two consecutive state titles during a seven-year tenure. He rose through the coaching ranks and became head coach at the University of Detroit. He excelled at the helm, leading the Titans to a 21-game winning streak and, in 1977, capturing the school’s second NCAA-tournament appearance.
Before a Sweet 16 matchup against defending national champion University of Michigan, then NBC Executive Producer Scotty Connal approached Vitale with an opportunity to speak to the broadcast team of Emmy Award-winning announcer Curt Gowdy and five-time AP College Coach of the Year John Wooden, who served as analyst. The men on the call noticed his larger-than-life persona.
Vitale recalls, “Scotty told me [after the game] that both guys, on their way out of the arena, said, ‘Man, we really like that guy’s energy and enthusiasm. You should think about him in TV someday.’”
The NBA’s Detroit Pistons came calling in 1978, but the gig lasted only one season. Soon the coach crossed paths again with Connal, who had recently been named VP of sports programming and operations at the fledgling ESPN.
“When Scotty called me to do my very first game, I told him I didn’t want to do it and I wanted to get back into coaching,” Vitale says. “He called me back a week later, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
He traded in a whiteboard for a microphone and called his first college-basketball game, ESPN’s first major NCAA game, on Dec. 5, 1979.
“Back then, he was just unbridled enthusiasm,” recalls ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “I say this with affection, but he was like an untrained colt. You were trying to get him into the gate and teach him what broadcasting was because what he had to offer beyond that was infectious.”
With exposure and experience, Vitale gradually found his voice and became the face of ESPN’s college-basketball coverage. An eclectic mixture of exuberance, excitement, and expertise, he began captivating viewers with nicknames like “Diaper Dandy” (a promising freshman player) and “PTP” (a primetime player) as well as phrases like “awesome with a capital A!”
“Those are said in the locker room,” he explains. “I just transferred a lot of that to television, and it’s become a really fun situation. Scotty taught me that there’s two things to broadcasting: you want to educate, and you want to entertain. I’ve always tried to do that.”
In more than 1,000 games, Vitale has teamed up with other prominent personalities on the sidelines, such as Brad Nessler, Brent Musburger, and Jim Simpson. Throughout the years, he has never strayed from what makes him great.
“He’s one of a kind because of his love, knowledge, and passion for the game,” says Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “People want to hear him. There will never be anybody like Dick.”
Although his on-air presence and lighthearted personality have left their mark on the world of sports, Vitale’s efforts in fighting childhood cancer have changed lives across the nation.
“One of his great friends was [late coach/broadcaster] Jimmy Valvano,” says Steve Anderson, former EVP, content operations and creative services, ESPN. “He has done everything he can to keep [the V Foundation for Cancer Research] and that fight for cancer going.”
Vitale’s status in sports-broadcasting lore remains secure through his unwavering passion for the game and his philanthropic endeavors. Now in his 40th season behind the mic, he credits many individuals for helping him along the way.
“Some beautiful people have played a vital role: the incredible inspiration and drive of my parents; my second family at ESPN; my wife of 47 years, Lorraine; my daughters,” he says. “I’ve been a very blessed and lucky guy. I’m not in these halls of fame if these people weren’t so good to me.”